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Coalition's legacy of inhumanity must end

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Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil and the Labor Government need to put an end to the Coalition's cruelty towards asylum seekers (Image by Dan Jensen)

In an open letter to Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil, Margaret Sinclair addresses the urgent need for the Albanese Government to end the Coalition's perversion of human rights.


Hopefully you’ve noticed us holding a banner and maybe you’ve even had a chance to read it.

The detention regime is inhumane; from indefinite detention to offshore detention and the many varied ways in which the Australian Government has denied vulnerable people the basic right to seek asylum, and to resettle successfully. No version of the current state of affairs can be made humane and the idea that there is a humane version should be abandoned by Labor.

Many refugee organisations expected Labor after the 2022 Election, at the very least, to implement its own 2021 platform in full, which included getting rid of the Fast Track process. Instead, you seem determined to accept the negative results of this flawed system. Priya Nadesalingam and her husband, Nades Murugappan, from Biloela were failed by the Fast Track process. This is the sole reason why they were grabbed in a pre-dawn raid, locked up in detention and threatened with deportation. Last year we all saw photos of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese posing with this family and giving them flowers and later permanent protection visas.

We didn’t vote Scotty from photo ops out just to be landed with Albo from photo ops. It is fundamentally unjust to not grant permanent protection visas to everyone else failed by the same system. Everyone should receive permanent protection visas, not just a family with the most publicity. And there’s no reason why it can’t be done as quickly.

Refugee Action Collective Victoria's Margaret Sinclair and Nachshon Amir holding a banner to grab Clare O'Neil's attention (Image supplied)

No one is fooled by the lie that somehow offshore detention is necessary. Those abandoned in PNG and losing their health on Nauru should be brought here to Australia. Once again, we have to point out the fundamental injustice of arbitrary lines in the sand that sent some people to Manus and Nauru, while others from the same boats came to Australia to apply for asylum as part of the “legacy caseload”.

Who decided who would be sent to PNG or Nauru and how was that decision made? Did Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo have a hat full of names and throw them up in the air? The names he caught in his left hand were sent to Manus, those in his right hand to Nauru and those whose names fell on the floor came to Australia? Was it a politician, public servant or security contractor who decided to play eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people’s lives and futures? How fundamentally unjust!

As unjust as over 120 amendments to the Migration Act that legally protected the Government while it unravelled the protections for people at the most vulnerable times of their lives. Every single amendment to the Migration Act this century has widened the chasm between what is legal and what is just.

Is that what you stand for, Clare? Injustice?

Australia has effectively withdrawn from the Refugee Convention by stealth, while bringing back the White Australia policy by stealth. There is nothing to be proud of in forcing people to resettle in other countries or to coerce them to return to their home countries despite the dangers. Refugees have families here, livelihoods here and are part of our communities now. Bring the remaining refugees from PNG and Nauru here and give the entire cohort the choice of whether they want to resettle elsewhere or resettle here. All people remaining here should be given permanent protection visas and lifelong support to recover from the trauma of offshore detention.

And when I speak of trauma, I am talking about complex trauma with every life held in limbo or detention destroyed. Here’s a big idea for you — deal with reality. Deal with facts. Talk to medical professionals and researchers who have an enormous body of evidence on the harm that Australia’s policies have caused.

A royal commission should be called into our treatment of refugees since mandatory detention was first legalised by a Labor government 31 years ago. The secrecy, the deliberate harming of people, the dodgy deals and contracts need to have a very bright light shone on them. All the dirty secrets, all the harm exposed, and then proper change and a full dismantling of the whole system is needed.

Both major parties being brutal, cruel and unjust over the past few decades might just be coincidentally linked to a reduced primary vote over the same period for both. The Liberal Party’s primary vote has been so low that it will likely never govern in its own right at the federal level again. How many years has it only been able to hold power because of its agreement with the National Party? If you continue with policies that are fundamentally unjust and dishonest, long may your primary vote continue to fall and Labor suffer the same fate.

Clare, we watched Labor time and again support and vote for Coalition policies over the past decade, use the same narrative and the same catchphrases, and to say we were disappointed is an understatement. To paraphrase John Curtin’s quote from 26 July 1943: The nation looked to Labor and it looked in vain. The Coalition had set the bar so low over the past decade that Labor could shuffle across and not stub its toes. Yet Labor came across as timid over all that time, fearful of Australia’s Right-wing/mainstream media and attacks from the Coalition in parliament.

You should have fought. You should have stood up for what was right. You should have showed courage and stood up to the bullying. Then at least you would have earned some respect. In 2007, Labor won a resounding victory while openly campaigning to close down offshore detention. Standing up for people at their most vulnerable is not a vote loser.

Despite the 2022 Election win, Labor still comes across as frightened of both the Coalition and mainstream media. It feels obvious after the Aston by-election that the Liberal Party has signed its own demise. But the media you can deal with through putting in place legislation and reviews to lift the standards. Truth in media laws, repeal Howard’s media ownership laws — there are some big ideas for you.

We don’t need a mediocre version of Labor, but the best version. We don’t want photo ops, we want decisions of substance. You’re not there yet, particularly if you continue to perpetuate the atrocities of the past against people who arrive by boat. Regardless of the mode of arrival, we expect that the immigration department processes claims timely, accurately, professionally, competently and responsibly. As I said, you’re not there yet, because what you lack is to do this willingly.

People don’t need to be in detention centres to have their claims processed. These militarised internment camps need to be dismantled, including for the 501s. Put money into rehabilitation programs in gaols and preventative measures such as reducing poverty, that’s what keeps communities safe and functioning. Meanwhile, the rhetoric that demonises refugees needs to end. It motivated the Christchurch mass murderer in 2019. It emboldens racists and neo-Nazis. We don’t want that here, thank you very much. Anti-refugee rhetoric endangers us all.

Clare, did you ever ask Pezzullo what he knew of the many contracts that were awarded without a tender process and what he did when he did know? Did he ever once advise Opposition Leader and former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton that what he was doing was questionable, to say the least? What was his role in this decision-making process? Why didn’t Labor sack Pezzullo when coming to office?

It’s well known how the morale in Home Affairs/Immigration has suffered under his leadership and frankly, it’s just not right for a public servant to use their position to enact their own political agenda. The Robodebt Royal Commission made that abundantly clear. A future royal commission into how Australia has treated refugees will also provide a great deal of clarity on that point as well. Instead of Labor having the courage to call a royal commission, I guess the upcoming National Anti-Corruption Commission might be the first step. There are a lot of matters that should come before the NACC and it is crazy that Labor continues renewing offshore contracts in the same manner as the Coalition.

Lastly, I want to talk to you about the many people languishing in Indonesia who need resettlement but can’t move forward because of Australia’s border regime. Apparently, Australia has let the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) know that it won’t take certain nationalities. Is that true? Did Peter Dutton/Michael Pezzullo ask the UNHCR in Indonesia to tell refugees that Australia won’t accept applications from Sudanese, Somali and Iranian nationalities? How blatantly racist!

Labor should not continue this policy. We’d like to hear a public statement, or at least for Labor to inform the UNHCR in Indonesia, that Australia will not discriminate based on country of origin and will accept refugees from all nationalities that are currently in Indonesia.

Clare, do you know why refugees are in Indonesia for so long? It’s because Scott Morrison imposed a ban on anyone applying for resettlement who registered with the UNHCR after July 2014. We are asking Labor to lift that ban and enable a safe pathway for people to come to Australia whether it’s under the humanitarian program or via sponsorship. These arbitrary lines in the sand cannot be allowed to remain and they play no part in a just and functional system.

The other reason why refugees are stuck in Indonesia for so long is that Scott Morrison also disgracefully reduced the humanitarian intake in 2014. For there to be a safe pathway forward, the humanitarian intake should be at least several thousand a year from Indonesia. In fact, the number of refugees in Indonesia equates to the number of unfilled places in the Humanitarian Program from 2020 and 2021. So we could take them all in one go to catch up!

Last year, I spoke to refugees in Indonesia who were told by Julia Gillard’s Government that if they didn’t take a boat, they would be given priority resettlement. Yet they are still left waiting. I spoke to refugees in Indonesia who arrived before the July 2014 ban, but their families arrived after that cutoff. How can they apply for resettlement here? I spoke to refugees allowed to apply for resettlement in Australia but were left to complete the form by themselves without legal or interpreter support and were rejected spuriously. I spoke to refugees who were told by the UNHCR that there’s no point in having their claim assessed because they have no chance for resettlement. Some have waited five years just for an interview. The system in Indonesia is broken and since it is funded and directed by Australia, your government can and should fix it.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) allowance for refugees hasn’t risen in over a decade but the cost of living has. Only two-thirds of refugees receive this allowance and the most basic accommodation imaginable, with draconian rules restricting their movement. Many are traumatised by their years in immigration detention. Children who aged in place are still on a child’s allowance in their mid-twenties. Everyone else is unfunded and living on borrowings, or on the street begging, totally destitute. Is it beyond the capacity of the current Australian Government to negotiate with the Indonesian Government to allow refugees to work in Indonesia while awaiting resettlement? I don’t think so. Australia funds IOM 100 per cent in Indonesia across the archipelago. It’s obviously not enough and/or is mismanaged.

The unfunded refugees are struggling financially. Everyone needs a way to survive since Australia turned a transit country into a place of never-ending limbo. IOM has engaged in several suspect behaviours over the years which have endangered the lives of refugees both through the detention system there, the denial of medical treatment, as well as encouraging people who are found to be refugees to return to danger because they have no chance for resettlement. Living a half-life for so long in limbo without the right to work, study, for Hazaras to practice a Shia faith in a Sunni Muslim country, have a driving licence or even buy a sim card for their phone, has created another humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.

These people fled war, persecution, torture and death threats. The act of fleeing is a natural and normal human reaction to extreme danger. Given the same set of circumstances, any one of us would make the same decision. It’s not one that they should be punished for making. A humanitarian crisis requires a humanitarian response, not a military response. Operation Sovereign Borders is a military response. It is the wrong response. The humanitarian response is the creation of a safe pathway through a drastically increased regional humanitarian intake.

A safe way forward, a just system for processing claims without the trauma of indefinite incarceration, legal protections that only a permanent visa can give, and reparation for those sent to Manus and Nauru. That is not too much to ask “that a better and more decent way of life can be given to all” (John Curtin).

Yours sincerely, the banner holders,

Margaret Sinclair (RAC Victoria) and Nachshon Amir (RAC Victoria and one of your constituents).

Margaret Sinclair has been a member of Refugee Action Collective since 2014. She is also on the committee for Doctors4Refugees.

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